All over Europe, far-right extremists gather momentum
Is hatred once again on the march in Europe? Around smart dinner tables in London, Paris and Rome, the answer might be a shrill no. This is the continent that prides itself in peacetime on its profoundly civilised nature, with humane justice systems, strong traditions of tolerance and a history of championing human rights.
But consider what is actually going on. In elections for the European parliament later this month, far-right parties expect to win numerous seats. In France, Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN), believes it will outperform the mainstream Left and Right.
The first steps have been taken to create a coalition of nationalist European political groups hostile to the European Union and manifesting differing degrees of nationalism or even racism.
On the fringes of Europe, television cameras capture the snarling or sinisterly hooded faces of opposing factions in Ukraine. That may be an extreme case as the country slides towards civil war. But wherever people are divided by culture, history or religion in the countries of the EU, or neighbouring them, signs of hate can be found today.
A new French film, 24 Days: the truth of the Ilan Halimi affair, depicts the gruesome death of a young Parisian Jew, kidnapped in a “honeytrap” and held captive in circumstances of appalling cruelty before being set on fire and left to die. The mastermind was Youssouf Fofana, head of the self-styled Gang of Barbarians. His insulting language, in ranting calls to the man’s relatives demanding a ransom, is presented in support of allegations of an anti-Semitic aspect to acts that started as a straightforward criminal enterprise. But there were black, olive and white skins in Fofana’s ragged band of accomplices, many incapable of anything approaching political thought.
All the same, Fofana’s vitriolic outpourings are profoundly shocking. The film will undoubtedly add to suspicion about and distrust of France’s large Muslim population. Yet sectarian hatred of Jews, also seen in the murderous exploits of Mohamed Merah whose victims in a 2012 shooting spree included three Jewish children, is only part of the story of inter-communal antipathy.
There seems no doubt that dislike of Muslim immigrants, mostly from France’s former African colonies, plays as great a part in the appeal of Ms Le Pen as disenchantment with the establishment.
The early consequences of recent successes in local elections are predictable. Newly elected FN mayors talk of cancelling commemorations of the abolition of slavery and abandoning previously agreed plans for new mosques. The pressing need for adequate prayer facilities for a Muslim population usually, perhaps conservatively, put at five-to-seven million, is hardly in doubt. Ms Le Pen’s voice has been among the loudest raised against Muslims praying in the street outside overcrowded mosques. It is only 10 years since Nicolas Sarkozy, later president, suggested that tinkering with France’s cherished secular law, to allow state aid towards building mosques in every sizeable town, would be a powerful tool against makeshift prayer rooms in tower block basements and the extremism fostered there. His idea was shot down in flames.
Ms Le Pen has devoted much energy to ridding her party of the anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic legacy of the leadership of her father, Jean-Marie, the FN’s creator and still its honorary president. She calls it her policy of dédiabolisation (de-demonisation). But as the EU elections approach, one of the other populist groups she is happy to forge links with is the Dutch Party of Freedom (PVV) whose leader, Geert Wilders, has said “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam” and likened the Quran to Mein Kampf. More recently, Wilders asked supporters at a rally in the Hague whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans. When they shouted back “fewer, fewer”, he pledged to “fix it”. Wriggling as best she can, Ms Le Pen pushes his right to free speech, asking: “Should that [our differences] stop us having a shared vision of the EU?”
In the same interview, with the French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, she speaks admiringly of a Eurosceptic partnership that would grow to include the Italian Northern League. Its founder, Umberto Bossi, was once obliged to deny reported remarks that illegal immigrants trying to reach Italian shores from Africa should be shot.
At the nominally less extreme end of nationalism, the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) fights constantly to curb the racist bile of some members. A candidate was suspended last week for describing Islam as evil and calling for Pakistan to be “nuked”. Even so, support for Ukip rises untroubled by the presence of unsavoury elements; recent polls indicate the party may grab the biggest share of the EU votes.
In almost all other European countries, nationalists also exploit concerns over immigration, crime and jobs in ways that easily translate into finger-pointing scapegoating of “foreigners”.
There is no easy answer. The French justice minister, Christiane Taubira, from a poor background in French Guiana, has been the target of hideous “banana” taunts, called a monkey by an FN candidate and even by small girls at a demonstration. Her recipe for change is to convince all Europeans of their common destiny and shared inventiveness. It sounds hopelessly idealistic and naive. She admits failure to act would be to “court catastrophe”. But Europe may need a sharply more focused response, starting with wider recognition that the forces of hatred are indeed gathering and threaten what the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur alarmingly calls “a vast, white, xenophobic” continent folded in on itself.
Colin Randall is former executive editor of The National and reports regularly from Europe
Published: May 7, 2014 04:00 AM